Visual basics in a coded environment

Google’s senior product manager and co-creator of the company’s digital whiteboard, the Jamboard heads a dedicated band of followers who appreciate his attention to detail. Clive Couldwell jostles for a place among his many admirers.

Colleagues have something of an admiration for TJ Varghese.

“He has an outstanding ability to gather ‘complex’ situations and end up with the ‘simplest’ solutions. This is not something I feel can always be taught, but is more of a unique character trait… amplified by his attention to detail… and an unwavering dedication to his customers,” says one, as another remarks: “I appreciated how TJ could articulate complex data issues in a concise, understandable way.”

Perhaps surprisingly for a developer, Varghese has a business background in marketing and sales. “My first job after my MBA was selling ERP software in early 2000. I knew nothing about software or technology other than I was hired to go sell. After 9/11, I decided to go back to school and take my Masters in Information Systems,” he recalls.

Post graduation, Varghese spent time with a couple of software startups that were relatively successful, ending up at one called Quickoffice producing mobile apps for smartphones. “One of our biggest customers at the time was Nokia. We preloaded the software to be able to read, and edit Microsoft Office documents without ripping out the format, and sending it back so you could email it from your phone,” he recalls.

“The company took off with the iPad app, a top seller for $30 to $40, as it did when we started preloading software on Android devices. Working with HTC, Samsung, Motorola, and others we shipped out-of-the-box.”

Naturally, this caught Google’s attention. “Conversations ensued and to cut a long story short, we were acquired. I joined the Google product team in 2012 and began working with the Google Docs and Drive teams,” says Varghese.

“I found it interesting that team members used Docs during video conference calls to present information and convey ideas. Documents don’t always lend themselves to visual or free-form expression easily, like design discussions or walking through the flow of a process. This made me think there had to be a better way to share visual ideas across geographies when conferencing.”

Varghese’s boss happened to be the founder of Google Docs. “He and I were chatting. Working on the doc sheets and slides for mobile apps, specifically for iOS, to me this was deja vu. I was back in 2009, but this time doing it for Google. Frankly, it bored me. I really started obsessing and thinking about how we could place realtime technology into a different format,” says Varghese.

“I’m a visual thinker, always sketching and drawing things out when I’m communicating. I found myself to be quite effective talking to people, being fascinated by the process.

“While I was running product for different applications, I realised that every time I tried to influence a new feature or idea, my designers were in Sydney, the software team in Boulder, Colorado, some of the management decision-makers in Mountain View, with me in New York.

“Often, when I had to get something out, I’d type it up in an email and try to describe it. But nobody would understand so then I had to schedule a meeting, email the document or a presentation, prep for it, get into the meeting and present it to everyone.

“In that meeting I had to go to the whiteboard to draw it out, to then realise that everyone I called couldn’t see it. Turning the camera to the whiteboard, we went through this whole process of: ‘I can’t see it. There’s too much glare.’ We spent a huge amount of time-suck and energy to only realise at the end of that meeting, I now needed to take a photo of this and send it to everyone. But that photo might stay in their email and never be used again because I had to transcribe the photo back into a presentation and then send it to them so they could collaborate around it,” he recalls with some frustration.

“Clearly, here we were at Google working with Docs, sheets, slides, and presentations in the most collaborative of environments. There was something broken, so it obsessed me to think about a solution,” he says.

Internal hackathon
An internal hackathon for Google’s teams followed. “I partnered with my co-founder, who’s now our elite engineer on the products, admitting he was tired of building the same thing over and over again and do we want to try something new,” says Varghese.

The duo tossed around submission ideas over lunch, and decided on a collaborative, drawing app for tablets that brings realtime visual brainstorming directly into meetings. They built a prototype that same day finishing in second place – by half a point – to a team that built a travel planning app.

“Guess you can’t beat vacations. But in spite of this, it helped us solicit early feedback on how to improve the app,” he says. “I still have the doodle where I scratched on a piece of paper saying this is how I think it looks like. He was there coding it, and then I would make changes, and we would just code for an entire day. I would test it out. At the end of the day, we came up with a drawing app that used the Google Drive API for authentication and realtime, and then we built a collaborative drawing app,” Varghese recalls.

After the hackathon, Barine (Tee, and Jamboard co-creator) and Varghese continued pursuing Jamboard on the side, both working in New York City, but Tee living in Pennsylvania and facing a long commute.

“Because of this, we iterated on the prototype while commuting. Most might see this geographical constraint as a hindrance, but it was the opposite for us. We collaborated through the app despite being in different states. It forced us to fix bugs faster because we depended on the app to move our idea along,” says Varghese.

Future of work
It was around this same time that Google created an internal team focused on the future of work. The rise of remote workers and technologies such as machine learning in the workplace are creating new opportunities for collaboration and creativity tools. Jamboard felt like a natural fit for the project. Over the course of three years, the project and team grew from two employees to more than 40.

“I started to obsess about the interface and started playing with all the existing interactive whiteboards. This became a 20% project at Google…” (where, for 20 per cent of their time, staff are allowed to work on anything they like, whether it’s related to the work they’re doing, or not. It used to be very popular in the early days of Google. Now, less so).

“We started showing some of our prototypes to my boss and his boss, our VP of apps at the time, Clay Bavor (now head of VR and AR). The idea of unlocking certain, I’ll call it digital conversations, on an open canvas and the ability to do it very quickly in a natural way was something that excited them. It’s what excited me. At that point, they were like: ‘Do you guys want to do this full-time?’ We said: ‘Yes’. So we quit our day jobs and incubated a small team in 2013. We got it out in three years.”

This is the beauty of Google which tests its own products (a process known as ‘dogfooding’) before they’re released to the general public.“Not everybody had tablets, so those who did said: ‘This is great, I can use it for my meetings, and everything else. I don’t use my tablet every day, but what would be really good is if I had it on a bigger screen.’ This point just kept coming back again and again.

The design of a screen would be key. “We went and bought, off-the-shelf, everything we could find but we hit a wall because then we realised there were some fundamental problems with where touchscreens were at (2014) – there weren’t many of them, they were very expensive and locked into either being just a dumb monitor, or part of a specific ecosystem. Touch performance was also terrible,” says Varghese.

“So, now we had this expensive device, locked out from being able to run some of the tech we needed to run on it, and performance was really bad. Then, we spent about three months going to shows, meeting display manufacturers, learning about why touch and performance was so poor, looked at the manufacturing process and the componentry. We then started to examine how people were using this kind of device in the field. A big part of getting this right was working closely with IT, AV and facilities leaders.”

According to Varghese, Google is working on the development of all kinds of intelligence tools to help companies manage and autocycle meeting rooms using operational analytics (realtime data management). “If you have good collaborative outcomes from a meeting, you’re reaching decisions faster, your companies are moving faster, you’re adding more revenue. That’s the way we see it.

“We’re headed toward a future where your productivity tools become intuitive and intelligent enough to help you go from ideas to action quickly. We think machine intelligence can help teams eliminate time spent on mundane tasks, like manually scheduling meetings but it can also help surface and format content.”

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